Identity Dream with No Foundation?

The official identity of the young independent Irish State was created out of a longing for all things distinctively Irish, which were sought and found in the country’s ancient ‘Celtic’ past. However, the following snippets show that the nation’s view of itself rested largely on a spurious knowledge-base.


  1. 1. One of the problems has been the lack of recognition of Gaelic society as a cultural group meriting scholarly archaeological investigation, like the Vikings or the Anglo-Normans. (Duffy, et al; p. 34)


  1. 2. Much of the material published on Gaelic dynasties during the nineteenth century and in the greater part of the twentieth century … tended towards romantic sentiment rather than historical accuracy. (Duffy, et al; p. 26)


  1. 3. In an emotively charged intellectual environment, scholars with strong nationalist sentiments in the fledgling Free State continued to cherish knowledge of early Christian and pre-Norman Ireland, but tended to disapprove of detailed examination of post-Norman history as inappropriate to the new circumstances of independence. Many of the Free State intelligentsia believed that study of the past should be a handmaiden to patriotism, to love of Ireland and its native people. (Duffy, et al; p. 37)


  1. [Gaelic revivalists of the 18th and 19th centuries] … had as their aim the creation of a positive national identity based on the romantic concept of the Irish as a heroic civilised people. The formula for this new Irish identity was sought in a regeneration of the traditional language, literature, music, arts and games. The problem was that in order to achieve these lofty aims the model for the heroic race could not be the Gael of the recent past, those who had lived through the war-torn sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and suffered defeat after defeat. Rather the template was divined as an ancient Celtic civilisation sufficiently remote and elusive so as not to bring with it any cause for dissension. (Duffy, et al; p. 35)


  1. [Scholarship] … was infected by value judgements peculiar to cultural nationalism. (Duffy, et al; p. 35)


  1. The transformation of the Gael into romantic Celtic hero … extended into the world of Irish Free State art. Lamb and Keating in particular, found suitable fodder for the crafting of a new Irish identity in the lifestyle and landscape of the Gaelic-speaking people of the West of Ireland which they believed ‘reflected a relatively unchanged pattern of life linked to an ancient Celtic era’ (Duffy, et al; p. 37)


  1. Historians have long believed that the British Isles were swamped by a massive invasion of Iron Age Celts from central Europe around 500 BC. However, geneticists at Trinity College in Dublin now claim that the Scots and Irish have more in common with the people of north-western Spain.
    Dr Daniel Bradley, genetics lecturer at Trinity College, said a new study into Celtic origins revealed close affinities with the people of Galicia.


  1. Archaeology presents us with a perplexing picture, one which is largely at variance with that presented by philology, early Irish history, folklore and tradition. It seems almost heretical to insist that a Celtic invasion of Ireland never happened. (Raftery; p. 228)


  1. [Ireland] … firstly sought to expunge from its culture all traces of alien influence in favour of a crude ‘authenticity’ with no actually existing reality. … Then, over-correcting this error, it sought to remove evidence of its native culture so as to present itself thoroughly modern in every way. This failure of self-understanding is at the core of Ireland’s recent problems. What emerged was a mishmash of an identity [Waters, 2012; pp. 271-272].


  1. Although the romantic perception of an ancient and glorious Irish past are viewed by many as nothing more than the quaint musings of old poets, which have little or nothing to offer contemporary society, few have gone to the trouble of exploring the manner in which our ‘national identity’ arose and how it came to be rejected—or at lease shelved. Links with the Gaelic past have been left aside in a type of group-acceptance: no discussion needed or accommodated. All that is left of traditional identity are the trappings. Scepticism has won the day. Meanwhile, at least in the Irish Republic, many acquiesce to traditional sentiments when patriotism is called for on state occasions. In this we have a glaring double-think. (Keogh; R. M. Shelter & Shadows – due for publication September 2016).


All buildings with weak foundations fall. Today we appear to be standing among the ruins of a former national identity and few seem to know how we got here or where we are going.


Duffy, P. J., Edwards, D. and FitzPatrick, E. (Eds.). 2004. Gaelic Ireland, c. 1250- c. 1650.  Four Courts Press. Dublin.

Raftery, B., 1997. Pagan Celtic Ireland. The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. Thames and Hudson.

Waters, J. 2012. Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot. Transworld Ireland.